Tarquinius Superbus – The Rise to Power

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (“The Proud”) was a legendary Roman king. According to the tradition recorded by the historians like Livy, he was the last Roman ruler of the Tarquin dynasty. He, reportedly, went too far in his tyrannical ways and the people of Rome revolted, overthrew him and the whole monarchy and implemented a constitution where the power was no longer unlimited and granted by birth. His path to power was paved by blood.

Origins and Family

The historians usually think about the Tarquins as an Etruscan family, and understandably so, as the period of their rule comes with a strong Etruscan influence on Rome, supported in the histories of Roman authors as much as in the findings of modern archaeologists. The legendary founder of the family is, however Greek – a rich merchant called Demaratus, who had to leave Corinth for political reasons and found a new home in the Etruscan city of Tarquinii. His son Lucumo then moved to Rome in order to pursue his ambitions (he had found it hard to do so in Tarquinii). Lucumo changed his name to a more Latin-sounding Lucius Tarquinius and managed to rise to the very top of the Roman pecking order. He became king and is known as Tarquinius Priscus (“the Elder” to be distinguished from his descendant Lucius Tarquinius Superbus). Nevertheless, the life of Tarquinius Priscus ended violently when the relatives of a former king successfully assassinated him in a coup attempt. The crown went to Servius Tullius, the king’s son-in-law instead. Tanaquil, the queen, was extremely helpful in this transfer of power. Her one condition for helping Servius Tullius, however, was that he would take care of the two little princes in the family – Lucius (Tarquinius Superbus) and Arruns Tarquinius.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was either a son or a grandson of Tarquinius Priscus. Livy believes the father-son version, but another historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus is probably right to point out that there needs to be one extra generation. Otherwise, Tarquinius Superbus would have been old enough to seize the power himself after the death of Tarquinius Priscus, and too old to seize it from Servius Tullius. The only piece of information Dionysius provides about Tarquin’s mysterious father is that he had died shortly before the assassination of Tarquinius Priscus. Either way, Lucius had a brother called Arruns and the two boys had a claim to the Roman throne. Servius Tullius promised to take good care of them, if we believe Dionysius, also pass the power to them once they reach the necessary age. Servius indeed held the boys in great respect and strengthened the already strong family ties by marrying the two to his own two daughters (either their nieces or their cousins). While Servius’ reign was full of successful reforms and military victories, he didn’t show any intent to share his power, let alone pass it to the Tarquin boys.  This made Lucius nervous. Blood was about to flow.

The Preparation

We already know that Lucius Tarquinius (Superus) was married to a daughter of king Servius Tullius (she was called Tullia). His brother Arruns was also married to a king’s daughter (also called Tullia). The problem was that his brother’s Tullia appealed much more to Lucius’ heart than his own wife. The two shared an ambitious and energetic soul – both were fierce, arrogant and bold, while Arruns and the other Tullia displayed much calmer personalities.

The fierce Tullia is said to set the wheels in motion. She desired to rule as a queen and saw the opportunity to do so through Lucius much more than through her own husband. Moreover, she couldn’t stand that good-for-nothing sister of hers, who, thanks to a sheer and unjust strike of luck, got to be married to the more capable of the Tarquin boys. She started to influence Lucius as strongly as a woman can, by seducing him and by bad-mouthing her sister and her husband.  Lucius finally made up his mind about getting his Etruscan buttocks on the royal throne that rightfully belonged to him. He was totally going for it! But those two unmotivated and stupid nobodies (his wife and brother) would just slow him down, not like the sister-in-law Tullia who perfectly understood and supported his ambitions. They came up with a simple solution – a double murder. This surprising move would be enough for him to accomplish two things – he would sit on the throne with the preferred Tullia by his side and he would also get rid of a possible competitor. Lucius and Tullia finished off the plan successfully.  The king thus lost a daughter and a son-in-law and the remaining daughter with the remaining son-in-law were ready to kill him. His days were numbered. Not long after the death of their spouses, the two murderers got married.  

Dionysius mentions their attempt to seize power in a non-violent way. Here Lucius Tarquinius presented the arguments in front of the Senate and the people, arguing that the throne belongs to him as he is the rightful heir of Tarquinius Priscus. But Servius Tullius argues that the royal power does not come for one’s parents but from the Roman people and that they granted the kingship to him and he did nothing wrong to be stripped of it. The people’s opinion followed Servius and Tarquinius learned he had to use other means to take the throne. He and his new wife started to gather support for the coup among the senators. The support came surprisingly quickly. One would expect the Senate and the people of Rome to stand behind the king who, in more than forty years of his reign, obviously brought internal stability and the respect of the neighbours. But the reforms of Servius Tullius were not universally accepted. The old and rich families did not appreciate the policies to help the poorer inhabitants of the city. They never forgot that this king seized his title with the help of tricks and was not properly chosen after a period of interregnum as had been the custom before (even though he did get elected eventually). Where arguments didn’t help, money did. Soon Lucius Tarquinius had so many supporters on his side, that he dared to challenge the king in an extremely impudent way.

The Coup

One would think, a coup attempt would require a very secret and well-planned assassination of the reigning king (similar to the one that had taken the life of Tarquinius Priscus). Lucius Tarquinius revolted very openly. One day he just marched into the Roman Forum with an armed group of his supporters, called a senate meeting, sat on the throne and proclaimed himself king. Of course, he continued with a moving speech about his noble origins in contrast to the illegitimacy of Servius Tullius, a usurper and a son of a slave!

The surprised Servius Tullius rushed to the Senate to see what was happening. He didn’t expect a revolution like this and immediately confronted Lucius Tarquinius: “How dare you proclaim yourself king while I am still alive?”. This time, Tarquinius didn’t come there to have a discussion. He knew he had the support he needed and he definitely had more physical power than the old king. He didn’t bother to reply with a speech, he just grabbed the king and threw him down the stairs. Servius Tullius, frightened by the obvious lack of help, tried to flee but didn’t get far. Tullia, his own daughter, made sure an assassin killed him on his way from the Senate building.

Tullia was there when the whole spectacle happened and was the first one who saluted Lucius as a king. She celebrated with her husband for a while, but then was sent away as Tarquinius began to give his first orders. Just as she was leaving the Senate building, the driver of her carriage spotted an obstacle on the street – the dead body of her father, the late king. Did she, in that lonely moment of truth, realize her crime and show her father some final respect? Of course not! She made sure the carriage passed right through the soulless body. This, according to the Roman legends, was the fitting start of the tyrannical reign of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

As for the body of the unfortunate Servius Tullius, the new king prohibited nut just a proper royal burial, but any burial at all. Tarquinius suspected that such a reminder of the late king’s respect and legacy could stir up the anger of the people and turn them against him. Sevius’ wife Tarquinia, however, ignored the orders and with her friends managed to quietly carry the body out of Rome and bury it. She didn’t live longer than one day more than her late husband. The romantic version of her death says she couldn’t have lived without him the less romantic one says the new king found out what she did and had her killed.


  • Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
  • Cassius Dio – Roman History
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman AntiquitiesTimothy Nolan Gantz – The Tarquin Dynasty; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 24, H. 4
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